Teachers Are Not Camp Counselors
by Jan Fisher
Today I cleaned the closet. I started early; I had done this before and I knew it was an all day job. A boring, all day job, but, still, it was with some sense of enthusiasm that I began. My first task was to go through a storage bag of clothes left over from some other decade. Something caught my eye--it was a long flowered skirt. They're back! I saw one like it at Nordstrom's. Things suddenly got interesting. Was there a top to match? Perhaps in one of the 40+ sweater bags on the shelf I could find one. Sure enough, there they were, not one but two! I found a couple of more "outdated" garments that are once again the rage. I also found the red mini skirt that had passed its time. It went into the bag for the Goodwill. I spent five hours on this task---an annual one. It wasn't fun at all, but, you know, it wasn't bad. Four bags for the Goodwill. Someone will like those! Several "new" outfits for me, some space left over for that new suit I want to buy, and, actually, it is a pleasure to open that closet door. Something satisfying about today if I do say so myself. It was an accomplishment. I wouldn't exactly describe it as fun, but it certainly was worthwhile.
Cleaning the closet was for me, just as many tasks are for you and for the students you teach, hard work. But it was a worthwhile task that made me feel a sense of accomplishment. Much of what we do in life is like that---cooking, planning lessons, coaching softball, studying for our masters. These tasks often give us great satisfaction, but they are not necessarily fun. We need to think of that when we design tasks for students at school. Are they challenging? Are they valuable? Are they effective? There might be fun in there somewhere, but that is not the main point. Learning is the main point.
Jere Brophy, Michigan State University, tells us "There is an overemphasis on motivating students by trying to make learning fun." He says this distorts learning into a game geared at keeping students interested. Learning is not recreation. There is a curriculum and goals that need to be accomplished, and learning requires sustained attention and work. Learning goals, outcomes, and activities are serious business and students must learn to undertake these tasks with serious engagement. If they enjoy it, that's great. But, even if they don't, there are good reasons for them to learn and work.
So, what can we do to motivate kids? If fun isn't the critical attribute, then what is?
The good news about motivation is that it is not inborn. We can, and do, have a great influence here. Motivation is stimulated through modeling, communication of expectations, and direct instruction. Motivation is about putting forth and sustaining effort in order to learn. And the effort people will expend is the product of two things: (1) their expectation of success (if they expend the necessary effort),and (2) the value of the task---both the process of learning and the performance. For example, I would love to be an astronaut. I put great value on the service of these people. But, for me, the expectation of success, is simply not there. I have about as much chance of making a successful shot to another planet as I have of being 21 again. Will I expend much effort on my NASA application? Not on your life. The success expectations are simply too low to warrant it. On the other hand, I think I could expect to be successful as a gourmet cook. But, do I value becoming one? I don't think so. I know the effort will be tremendous if I am to become the next Julia Childs and, frankly, I don't value it enough to bother. Lean Cuisine works for me. Because only one variable---success or value---is present in each of these examples, my motivation to put forth effort on either is not sufficient. I am only motivated to do things where I see some chance for success AND where great value is placed on the task. That's why I stuck to the task of cleaning the closet. Past experience told me I would feel this sense of accomplishment when I finished, and the value I placed on the process was unmistakable! I knew I would unearth some relics that could be recycled and I could actually find things again!
Are there things we can do with students to help them feel successful and to value the process and its outcome enough to sustain effort on a task that is not always great fun? Absolutely!
MOTIVATING BY BUILDING SUCCESS EXPECTATIONS
-Program for success. Begin at the correct level of difficulty where there is a feeling of challenge - "I can do this if I put forth some effort." Move in small steps, adjust task difficulty along the way, and prepare students sufficiently at each step.
-Recognize and label the linkages between effort and success. Attribute success to effort rather than ability, luck, or difficulty of task. Attribute lack of success to lack of effort, lack of information, or lack of adequate strategies.
-Teach goal setting, performance appraisal and self-reinforcement skills. Concentrate on immediate, specific and challenging goals and give feedback on performance.
-Compare performance to a set of criteria, not to peers. Focus on an individual's progress toward a goal, not relative standing in a group.
MOTIVATING BY BUILDING VALUE
-Adapt tasks to students' interest. Make them relevant and meaningful.
-Include novel elements. Get rid of the daily grind!
-Allow choices or autonomous decisions. Offer them alternate ways to meet your criteria.
-Provide opportunities for students to be actively engaged and to interact with peers.
-Provide immediate feedback to student responses. This can be in the form of peer review or answer keys.
-Include simulation events.
-Introduce game-like activities that introduce an element of randomness/uncertainty.
-Include higher level objectives.
-Model your interest and motivation to learn. Show them you value learning in its own right. Share the frustrations you've had as well as the rewards.
-Communicate desirable expectations and attributions about students' motivation to learn.
-Project intensity, enthusiasm, interest, curiosity.
-Model task-related thinking and problem solving. Making your thinking processes overt shows students how to solve a problem and also shows them how you persist in dealing with dead ends.
The strategies you use to motivate students are limited only by your own creativity.
When those strategies address the building of success and value, rather than fun, the kids will persevere towards the objective even when the going gets rough. While we want learning to be enjoyable for students, perhaps "fun" isn't the best descriptor. Learning won't always be fun. It is often hard and exhausting. It can be frustrating, often downright discouraging. It can be boring. Words like meaningful, worthwhile, satisfying, valued, appreciated might be better ways to describe the affective response of kids when they are learning what they should be learning. Those expectations might keep them focused and on task more than the expectation of fun. As Jere Brophy says, "There might be fun in there somewhere and that's great. But, it is not the main point. Teachers are not camp counselors."
Brophy, Jere; Motivating to Learn, 1998
Eric Digest #92, Student Motivation to Learn
Stipek, Deborah, Motivation to Learn; from Theory to Practice, l988